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Abraham Foxman circled the block a couple of times, looking for a side entrance, before finally entering the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side of New York City, where he spoke Thursday evening, to avoid a group of protesters who had gathered across the street. Though inside the conversation revolved around modern day anti-Semitism, following the publication of Foxman's new book, The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control, the protesters were there to demand that Foxman do more to recognize the Armenian genocide.
The ADL's longstanding refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide came to the fore in the last two weeks, creating a public rift in the organization Foxman has led since 1987. Pressure from the Jewish community in Massachusetts led Foxman to call the massacre of Armenians "tantamount to genocide," and rehire the head of the New England chapter after firing him for publicly voicing opposition to the organization's previous position.
But some Jews and many Armenians say Foxman didn't go far enough, and accused him of trying to play both sides of the coin. His recognition of the genocide fell short of supporting two congressional bills that ask the US to make a formal recognition.
The protest organized by the Jewish Web site Jewcy.com, which published an article several months ago calling on Foxman to be fired over this very issue, seemed largely to fall on deaf ears. The majority of people at the Y were there to hear Larry David - the man behind the popular television series Seinfeld, and more recently Curb Your Enthusiasm, who was speaking in another auditorium - and many of them did not seem to know who Foxman was.
And despite attempts to slip a few genocide-related questions into the conversation between Foxman and Stuart Eizenstat, who served as president Carter's chief domestic policy adviser and as president Clinton's deputy treasury secretary, the Armenian genocide never made it through the doors of the Upper East Side institution.
Instead Foxman was asked to respond to another accusation. A recent profile of Foxman in The New York Times magazine portrayed him as being hysterical when it comes to the question of anti-Semitism in the modern world. "Are you hysterical?" asked moderator Thane Rosenbaum, a celebrated novelist and law professor at Fordham University.
"I think the connotation of hysterical is in the eyes of the beholder," said Foxman, who proceeded to draw repeated comparisons between anti-Semitism today and in the 1930s.
"Last time we were not vociferous was in the 1930s, when everybody said it wasn't serious," said Foxman. "I think it's more serious than it's ever been since the 30s. Call it what you want, but we have a duty, an obligation to stand up and say it's serious."
Later, in answer to a question from the audience, Foxman added that "The United States is not immune to anti-Semitism... [There are] 40 million Americans who believe you and I are not loyal, are too powerful, too influential, too this and that. But more disturbing, which is why I wrote the book, is that one of three Americans think American Jews are more loyal to the State of Israel than we are to the US."
While Eizenstat acknowledged the increased threat to Jews, especially in Europe, he argued that the greatest danger to Diaspora Jewry comes from within, due to increasing rates of intermarriage and disaffiliation. "We have to put this in context - it's 2007 not 1937," said Eizenstat.
That argument seemed particularly potent in light of the sold-out, 900-seat auditorium where comedian David was appearing, compared to the 300-seat room used for the discussion on modern anti-Semitism.
"It's fair to say the SAT scores of the people in this room are a lot higher, and our children will get into better colleges," joked Rosenbaum.
But on a more serious note, Rosenbaum wondered whether on the cultural front, comedians such as David and Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame, who he said "trivialize" anti-Semitism, are of concern.
Eizenstat said there was no point in laying blame for anti-Semitism on Jews.
Foxman, on the other hand, said "it hurts" when Jews make fun of, or trivialize Jewish fears and anxieties.
"What Borat does is he makes it acceptable," said Foxman. "You can laugh about people singing 'Let's throw the Jews down the well' [a reference to a Borat sketch], but that's not funny at all."
In a conversation with one of Baron Cohen's agents, Foxman told the audience, he agreed to speak to the comedian on the condition that Baron-Cohen would agree to make a public service announcement on behalf of ADL saying: "Prejudice is not funny; anti-Semitism is not a joke."
"I'm still waiting," Foxman said.
The conversation at the 92nd Street Y was scheduled on the heels of the publication of Foxman's new book, which he wrote to counteract the publication of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, an extended version of the Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer paper that appeared last year in the London Review of Books.
In his own book, Foxman tackles the academic pair's arguments on a point by point basis and argues that, "As history shows us, when people in the West are sufficiently anxious, fearful, angry and confused, a familiar scapegoat tends to rise to the surface again and again: the Jews."
While there was some discussion Thursday about the pair's controversial book, more time was spent discussing Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid best-seller, to the apparent dismay of the ex-president's former adviser Eizenstat. "I think it's unfortunate we are spending all this time on Carter," he said. "I certainly didn't come from Washington to debate the Carter book. There are many more important issues."
Foxman, in his new book, places Carter "on the couch," and the ADL head argues that the former president comes from a strain of Christianity which "has never forgiven the Jews for not accepting Jesus as the messiah."
Foxman's analysis elicited the evening's most tense response from Eizenstat: "I have to say Abe, stick to running the ADL, and don't try to become a psychologist, because you really are dead wrong, if I may say so."